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Dear Reader,

My name is Aaron Thompson and, while I might be an important part of this story, this story isn’t mine. It’s my best friend Bess’s story, and I was just lucky enough to be part of it. Bess met her husband Eli when we were still kids, they fell in love, they got married, and then their marriage fell apart. They hate one another now, and they can barely be in the same room together for more than five minutes without Bess wanting to scratch Eli’s eyes out. Before they can finalize the divorce, however, they have to clean out the old cabin at Lake Fisher, so they can sell it.

You see, this is where I come into the story, mainly because the safety and care of three precious little beings rests on whether or not they can find their way back together. I won’t ask them to pretend like they’re in love; it’s obvious how much disdain they have for one another. All I ask is that they give me one more summer.

I do have my own reasons for wanting to help them, which I will explain in more detail. But right now, just know that Bess and Eli’s story is an important one, and that I was honored to play a part in it.

Best regards,
Aaron

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Chapter One

AARON

Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth. The rest of the time it goes for the balls. In my case it went for everything.

“Are we there yet?” Kerry-Anne scrubs her eyes as she looks out the side window of the van. She stares into the darkness, and I am pretty sure she can’t see anything beyond the road that is illuminated by my headlights.

“You’ve asked that no less than fifty times in the past hour,” Sam grouses from the other side of the van. I watch in the rearview mirror as she scrubs her face into the pillow that rests against the window and settles back down with a scowl on her face.

“Are we there yet, Daddy?” Kerry-Anne asks again quietly, her voice soft as a kitten’s purr in the back seat.

Kerry-Anne isn’t the baby of the family. At six years of age, she is squarely in the middle of the other two. Yet Kerry-Anne has the softest soul of anyone I’ve ever met. She’s gentle and kind and…well, the opposite of Sam. Sam is abrasive and rude and combative. She’s pretty much everything that makes those big spiders you see on nature shows want to eat their young. She has just turned twelve, and next week she’ll be twenty-one. Or so it feels.

Just then, I see the sign for Lake Fisher, and I take the exit, one step closer to the only place I want to be right now. “Just a few more miles, Kerr Bear,” I say. “We’re almost there.”

“Yay,” Sam says, her voice droll and lifeless.

“Sam,” I scold. “Cut it out.”

“Yes, sir,” she snarks back at me.

Sam hadn’t wanted to leave home. She doesn’t want anything to change. But change is inevitable. It comes for you, even when you try to keep it away. I don’t want change, either. But it’s coming, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

I see the sign for the campground first. Lake Fisher. Home of the biggest bass and the clearest lake water you ever will find. It’s also home to my childhood, or at least the summers. Every year from the time I can remember, my parents brought me here to spend the summer.

One side of the complex houses a campground, and you will see anything from the smallest of tents and pop-up campers to great big pull-behind monstrosities of decadence with satellite TVs and hot tubs on top. Right now, it’s early June, so the campground is populated with little tents and pop-up campers. The camper lots that aren’t occupied, since it’s a weekday, show their emptiness with the power poles and septic hookups exposed in my headlights.

The road we drive in on is not much more than a path, and I have to take it slow and straddle the ruts in the road at times. Kerry-Anne giggles as she jostles from side to side, and Sam kicks the back of my seat.

Sam,” I warn, my voice harsh.

A grunt is her only response.

We’ve been driving for eight hours and I am just as ready to be done as she is.

After we pass the campground, my heart eases a little when I see the tiny cottages all neatly lined up in rows. They are the original tiny houses, but without the glam that you see on TV. They’re made of wood with aluminum roofs, and when I see them standing there like sentries on a battlefield, I feel like I’ve come home. Finally. I am home. And I have the most important people in my life with me. I have Sam. I have Kerry-Anne. And I have Miles. Miles is tucked into his car seat, still sleeping, which means he will be up all night. But I don’t care. I am here. I am back at Lake Fisher, at the only place I want to be.

I turn at the fourth row of houses and drive to number eighty-two. It’s a tiny little cottage with two bedrooms and a kitchen that isn’t more than a sink and a stove. But it’s mine. It had belonged to my parents before me. And now it’s mine. I haven’t been here in years, and it shows. No one has been here. The paint is peeling, and the porch looks a little crooked. The wood is warped, and it isn’t the vibrant redwood color I remember. But like everything in life, it can all be fixed.

Well, almost everything can be fixed. Except me. That’s one thing that can’t be fixed.

“Can I get out?” Kerry-Anne asks, her voice full of excitement.

“Yeah, just don’t go far. It’s dark. And we need to unload.”

I cut the engine and the porch goes dark. The little cottage glares at me, limned by the light of the moon behind it. I take a deep breath and get out.

Sam sits there, her face still stuffed against her pillow.

“Let’s go, Sam,” I say.

She lifts her head, glares at me, and then bundles her pillow in her arms and throws the door open. “So, this is it?” she asks, looking toward the little cottage with a snarl to her lip.

“This is it,” I reply.

I reach in and lift the handle of Miles’s car seat. He still sleeps soundly. I hope he might sleep long enough for me to finish unloading. I lift his seat from the car and start for the front door.

The crunch of gravel behind me forces me to turn and look toward the little path I’d just rode in on. I smile when I see the red golf cart, another relic of my youth, which is just as well known to me as the man who sits on it.

“Welcome to Lake Fisher,” Mr. Jacobson says as he cuts the motor on the golf cart, then switches off the headlights.

I walk over and stick out my hand, my other hand clutching tightly to the handle of Miles’s car seat. When I was a young boy, this man scared the shit out of me. He was surly and nasty, and he had a way of making you like him anyway. Several times, he’d caught me doing things I shouldn’t have done and he’d made me clean the bathhouses. With my toothbrush. Yet I still have the utmost respect for the man, and I suspect I always will.

“It’s good to be here, Mr. Jacobson,” I say, as I take his weathered old hand in mine. He gives me a squeeze and lets my hand go.

“What do you have there?” he asks, pointing toward the car seat.

I shrug my shoulders. “It’s a kid. There are two more around here somewhere.”

He chuckles. “Set it right here so I can have a good look. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.” He motions to the seat next to him.

Mr. Jacobson has been saying that since I was a boy. His eyes are sharp as tacks. They always have been. I set the seat on the bench next to him and he looks down into Miles’s sleeping face. “They’re cute when they’re asleep,” he says.

They can be cute when they are awake, too, but not all the time. Sam is proof of that.

I feel Kerry-Anne’s little hand slide into mine and I look down at her. “Who’s that, Daddy?” she asks, standing behind my leg a little.

I brush her bangs back with my fingertips and she leans against me hard. “Kerry-Anne, this is Mr. Jacobson. He runs this place.”

“Oh, is that what he told you?” a voice booms out from behind us. Kerry-Anne leans harder against me, so I pull her closer.

“Jake,” I say loudly. He comes forward and sticks out his hand, but I bypass it and pull him in for a hug. “God, it’s good to see you.”

Jake and I had spent summers together from the time I could remember until I went off to college and real life started. He has gotten a little thicker in the middle but nothing else has changed about his smiling face. Almost every childhood memory I have involves Jake and some shenanigans that were determined to get me in trouble. And they normally did.

“Glad you’re here,” Jake says. He sobers at little. “I’m sorry the circumstances are what they are, Aaron. I really am.” He says the last part quietly, almost a whisper. But I still hear him. I’m sorry too, but there isn’t much I can do about it. He looks toward the car seat. “Did Pop already steal your baby?” he asks. “He’s good at that.”

“Looks like it.”

“Speaking of which,” Mr. Jacobson says, “I’m going to run up to the big house. I’ll be back in a minute.” He starts up the golf cart, turns on the headlights, and hits the gas. I reach for the car seat, but old man Jacobson just wraps one arm around it and takes off toward the big house, which is where the Jacobsons live. It’s a monstrosity of a house on the other side of the complex.

“He took my baby,” I say lamely as I watch the cart bounce away in the other direction.

Jake chuckles. “He’ll bring him back when he either makes noise or takes a poop. I promise.” He claps his hands together. “Need some help unloading?”

I can’t turn down an offer of help. “I’d love some.”

“Katie came down this morning and cleaned up for you. She changed the sheets and dusted. Opened some windows to air things out. Set up the portable crib.”

My heart twists in my chest. “Tell her thank you for me, will you?”

“You can tell her yourself tomorrow,” he says. “She wants you guys to come for dinner.”

“We don’t want to be any trouble.”

Jake shakes his head. “No trouble. Pop’s grilling.”

“Oh, well, in that case.” I wouldn’t miss that for the world. The old man grills better than anyone on the planet. Every Saturday night during the summer, he used to feed the whole campground.

“She’ll be glad to see you. And Gabby will be home from college tomorrow. She’s looking forward to babysitting your kids so you can do what you need to do.”

He doesn’t bring up the word. Chemo. I need to go to chemo. “I appreciate it.”

“Let’s get you unloaded so you can get some rest.” Jake stares at me a beat too long, just long enough to make me uncomfortable. Then he gets to work.

We unload suitcases and bring in boxes of toys the kids can’t do without. But we’ve traveled pretty light, considering why we’re here. I brought enough food to keep them alive, so we take that inside too.

Jake comes over and reaches out his hand again. I take it, holding it tightly. “I’m glad you’re here, A,” he says, shortening my name to the one he’s always called me. Just that makes me feel like I’ve come home.

“Me too,” I say, swallowing past the lump in my throat. I need to be here. In more ways than one.

I hear the crunch of gravel at the same time I see the headlights.

“Told you he’d bring him back,” Jake says, and I can hear Miles screaming over the rumble of the wheels. Jake snickers.

This time, old man Jacobson has a little girl hanging off the back of the cart. She leaps to the ground right in front of us, just as I reach in to take Miles and his seat.

“I’m Trixie,” she says.

Jake reaches out and touches the top of her head, pawing it like a big old bear. She looks up at him and grins. She has a tiny smear of what looks like chocolate on the corner of her mouth. “This is my daughter,” Jake says, his voice full of pride.

I pull Kerry-Anne from behind my leg. “This one is mine.” I jerk a thumb toward Sam, who still sulks on the steps. “And that one.”

Trixie ignores Sam and asks Kerry-Anne, “Do you want to play tomorrow?”

Kerry-Anne looks up at me. “Can I, Daddy?”

I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t see why not.”

Suddenly, a dog bounds up. The thing is huge and hairy and at least a hundred and fifty pounds. I shove Kerry-Anne behind me. The big dog sits down next to Trixie, his tail swishing from side to side. Trixie jerks a thumb toward the dog. “This is Sally,” she says. “He’s my best friend.”

Mr. Jacobson says, “We need to get home, Trixie-Lou. Or else your mama’s going to come looking for us.” She hops up next to him and scoots as close as she can get. Then she pats the seat next to her and Sally jumps up too. He dangles there on the seat with his butt on the cushion as he stands on his front legs.

“See you tomorrow!” Trixie calls out as they head off, Jake following.

Kerry-Anne pulls on the hem of my shorts. “Daddy,” she says quietly.

I brush her hair back from her face. “What, baby?”

“Was that dog wearing a tutu?”

“I think so.” But I have no idea why. I laugh and usher her, Miles, and Sam inside.

When I close the door of the little cottage, I leave everything outside that isn’t important. I leave my fears about the future. I leave my anger at what is going to happen. And I bring all my love inside with me and close the door. I know the fear and the anger will still be there tomorrow, but today, I can shut them away for just a little longer.

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